Per Lindberg
Wireless design professionals are aware of the fact that M2M connectivity is found in everything from consumer electronic devices, to roaming sheep and point of sale terminals.  Most of the verticals are grouped together under the term M2M for machine-to-machine communications.   But it seems less is known about the automotive industry, which has its own special name for M2M connectivity - Telematics.  So, how is telematics different?  M2M connectivity devices that are used in one vertical could also be easily used in another, correct?  Not really.

Taming the Automotive Beast

The automotive environment is an entirely different beast.  Devices that go into a vehicle need to be able to handle the extremes that cars “weather”, such as high humidity, varying temperatures, vibrations, etc.  This places a high level of requirements not only on the telematics solution, but also on the automotive industry as a whole.  In addition to the extremes that the car may withstand, cars also have a longer lifespan than many other M2M connected devices. (With the exception of Smart Meters.)  Let’s break down the typical lifespan of a car, to get a better understanding.  A new car model may be in development for three to four years and then sold for another seven years.  Even after that, the car is still expected to live for another 10-15 years as it moves from owner to owner.  A solution that is being deployed in 2011 may still be in use in the vehicle 30 years down the road.  To help put this in perspective, how many times does a typical person or company change their personal navigation device or POS terminal during that period of time?  Obviously, the telematics providers and others in the supply chain need to guarantee levels of quality that last over time according to what the customer expects.  In this respect, the automotive vertical is special when in comes to M2M.

eCall (Emergency Call)  to the Rescue

As the industry pushes PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Point) and car OEMs (Original Equipment Manufactures) to upgrade their infrastructure to ensure that suitable hardware is available to support eCall initiatives, MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) will also face additional investment requirements to ensure that their core infrastructure software is in synch.  It is also well known that consumers are not interested in paying extra for a service such as eCall in their automobile, so the OEMS need to find alternative revenue channels as a supplement to their investment for this feature.

A clear example of an OEM implementing eCall plus more is Volvo’s recent implementation of its “Volvo On Call”.  This service was initially designed to be able to detect when a vehicle is involved in an emergency or serious accident through its ability to sense when an airbag has been deployed or when a customer presses the car’s SOS button. The service contacts a Volvo On Call operator who immediately dispatches help.  This is where the benefits of eCall becomes apparent.  Telematics providers want to take responsibility in building an infrastructure that has the potential to save several thousand lives annually.  In order to “sell” this service to consumers, Volvo had to add additional features to the eCall offering such as remote starting, vehicle tracking, fuel consumption, etc.  Since the addition of those value added services Volvo has sold many more eCall packages!

Voice Traffic (Jam)

Another major difference compared to almost all M2M applications, is that many automotive applications require voice traffic. Voice and SMS were at one time the only bearer services that MNOs offered, but today GPRS, 3G and LTE are the data services of choice. Even so, some automotive applications still require voice, such as eCall (as mentioned above).

Several OEMs build a service based on using voice as a data channel by using in-band modem technology. Voice complicates things in the connectivity space since the solutions span multiple countries, cost can become difficult to predict, and quality becomes hard to guarantee. While there are many clever data compression and echo cancellation algorithms in play to help with functionality, in order to manage things in a proper way, more advancements need to be made in order for the technology to work in a way that a customer would expect.

Going Green

Taking another angle on Telematics, the electric vehicle is still fairly new, which is a challenge of its own. Different companies are trying to find viable business models to support their different products. This really is a green field area, and increased funding is finding its way into new start ups in areas such as smart charging, battery technologies, charge station infrastructure, etc. Previously, most of the funding has come from government programs as well as regional programs, but now risk capital seems to find these companies as well.  Given the trend of going green, EV (Electric Vehicle) sales are projected to increase drastically by next year.  This is the time when we can really start referring to this trend as part of a mass market. And looking at the lead times needed to create the vehicles (it seems every car OEM has at least one new EV model on the drawing boards), as well as the surrounding infrastructure for payments, this seems like reasonable timeframe.

This new market holds a lot of interest for Telematics. One of the first companies venturing into this field is Nissan with its LEAF, which has every vehicle shipped with M2M connectivity. But the vehicle is only part of this new eco-system that will be connected.   There have been strong opinions that the smart grid will be a vital part of the complete solution. That means that charging stations, electricity meters in homes and offices, and other parts of the grid infrastructure will be connected.  With Telematics, monitoring of EVs current battery status is as easy as picking up your smartphone.  Reserving a charging station, paying for electricity using a smartphone’s are all things achievable through M2M connectivity.

There are other things, too many to mention in detail, like the complex supply chain, the business models and the challenges of providing a global solution that also make the automotive space unique. Other verticals, of course, have their own challenges, but the automotive vertical still is the most complex, which is why it deserves its own name, Telematics.


Posted by Janine E. Mooney, Editor

December 22, 2011